Knowledge, secrecy, and elite education

The academic press is particularly provocative these days. In a fascinating Chronicle column by Georgetown’s James O’Donnell, What a Provost Knows, we are informed that, as provost, he alone knows all the secrets of campus finances, the scale of comparative worth embedded in the salary hierarchy, and the general health of the institution. He ends by saying:

“That’s the burden of the job: knowing all the things that others don’t know or would rather not know. Much that I know I can’t talk about, and I have had to get used to being the object of (usually) undeserved suspicion. Because I know so much, my actions are not fully intelligible to those who observe them. The hardest part of being provost has been learning that it’s right and proper that I be suspected — that such vigilance is part of what keeps our institution healthy.

In the end, the burden of knowledge is worth it. The pleasures of the job are many, not least of which is understanding this marvelous institution so well — a Rube Goldberg creation that really does work, and very well indeed. And the opportunity to kibitz on the intellectual lives of more than 500 keenly intelligent and resourceful faculty members is an immense privilege. Even cleaning up their messes and fixing their leaky roofs gives me great satisfaction.”

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New temporalities and spatialities of “theory” in the humanities

Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed deal with the politics of literary theory and the importation of French post-structuralist thought into the U.S. Jeffrey Williams, in “Why Today’s Publishing World is Reprising the Past,” examines a recent trend towards reprinting famous classics of yesterday’s theory scene — Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like. “The era of theory was presentist, its stance forward-looking. Now it seems to have shifted to memorializing its own past,” he comments. He explains this partly as the shift from “revolutionary,” unsettled science to the successful institution of a new “theory” paradigm, partly as a result of decreased financial support and increasingly precarious jobs in the humanities. But what seems interesting to me is the shift in temporal orientation itself. Academics play with time in so many ways. Sometimes memorializing the past becomes a strategy for making intellectual progress in the present. Other times, the fantasy of a radical break with the past is the occasion for reproducing the past without knowing it.

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French universities funded according to performance

Liberation reports today that a new report from the French Senate “advocates a system of State budget distribution to universities depending ‘on performance criteria,’ notably that of student job placement.” The current system of budget allocation is “criticized by numerous actors for its unreadable, opaque and complex character.” (Incidentally, the total sum allocated to universities is, by American standards, absurdly low: 8.5 billion euros.) The aim of the new system would be to “restore a greater equity among universities” and to encourage “further efficiency in the utilization of their means.”

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